Gates and Gov. Cuomo Take Advantage of COVID-19 and Re-Imagine the NY Education System
By Curtis Cost, CHD Guest Contributor
In May of 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he had asked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help “reimagine” the New York Education System. The response from educators and others was swift and harsh. A close look at the impact that the Gates Foundation has had in the past on the educational system in New York and elsewhere, sheds light on this situation.
What Does Reimagining Education Mean?
Many people, including educators and parents, are unsure of what does “reimagining” the New York education system really mean. Governor Cuomo said that he planned to form a panel to address key issues in trying to reimagine the New York education system. He noted that he had invited Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive at Google to lead this panel.
As reported in the Washington Post, Governor Cuomo outlined some of the goals of the effort to reimagine the education system using technology. Some of these included:
- Assist with reopening schools in light of social distancing and other guidelines
- Create greater access for different students
- Shared education between schools and colleges
- Reduce educational inequalities
- Better assist students with disabilities
- Help educators better use technology
While on the surface all of these this sound like noble goals, one of the things that caused most people to get upset was when Cuomo questioned the need for school buildings given all of the technology that’s now available. At a news conference, Cuomo said:
“The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?” (Washington Post, May 6, 2020)
Backlash From Educators
The fact that Governor Cuomo suggested getting rid of school buildings and apparently having students study remotely from home, sent chills down the spine of many. It was too much too soon for educators and parents to accept. There were simply too many unknowns and too many pitfalls that could spell disaster for students, teachers, parents and everyone else involved in the educational system.
On top of that, everyone has fond memories of their school days in which they made new friends, played in gym class, enjoyed school assemblies, went on class trips, learned new things, group discussions, school sports, prom night and so much more. The idea of students being denied all of these rich experiences was unthinkable for most people. The negative responses were quick!
Jasmine Gripper, Executive Director of Alliance for Quality Education said:
“Both the Gates Foundation and Andrew Cuomo have a history of pushing privatization and agendas that have the potential to destroy public schools….This collaboration raises a red flag and real questions about what shape our ‘reimagined’ public schools will take post-pandemic, and whether they will be recognizable as public schools at all.” (Syracuse.com May 6, 2020)
Andy Pallotta, President of the New York State United Teachers also attacked Cuomo’s remarks:
“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Let’s secure the federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultrawealthy that can go toward addressing these needs. And let’s recognize educators as the experts they are by including them in these discussions about improving our public education system for every student.” (Washington Post, May 6, 2020)
Kathleen Elliott-Birdsall, a New York teacher, said:
“Andrew Cuomo does not value teachers. He did not include any K-12 educators on his panel for reentry [from coronavirus closures]. I find it incredible that he asks Bill Gates, a man who has disrupted education in so many ways, to develop a plan. Why not ask teachers, those of us in the front lines, for input?” (Washington Post, May 6, 2020)
Emily Marie, a math teacher in New York, described in one word her initial reaction to Cuomo’s plans to reimagine NY education with the help of Bill Gates: “Disaster!”
Trying To Calm The Fears
The criticisms were so intense that a key advisor to Governor Cuomo, Jim Malatras, had to try to calm the fears. He said:
“I think as a long-term strategy, you can’t replace face to face education….I think there’s an important social connection between an educator and your student.” (Spectrum News, May 14, 2020)
Just one day after the announcement, Cuomo attempted to dampen the public outcry by writing on his Facebook page:
“Teachers are heroes & nothing could ever replace in-person learning.” (Forbes, May 8, 2020)
Even the Gates Foundation was obliged to issue a statement:
“The foundation is specifically supporting this effort by recommending education experts who can help advise and inform this work across a range of topics. We believe that teachers have an important perspective that needs to be heard and should be represented on this panel.” (Washington Post, May 6, 2020)
While allowing some teachers to share their recommendations to the panel is a step in the right direction, it says nothing about how much influence teachers will actually be allowed to have on the final proposal. This is especially important because in the past the Gates Foundation has been criticized for not including teachers in their educational initiatives, including Common Core. This is why many teachers and other educators remain skeptical.
Why Educators Worry About Gates
For many years Bill Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has had a massive impact on school systems across America, but most of those initiatives have resulted in controversy and failure.
One such project involved breaking larger schools into smaller schools as reported in Forbes:
“At the beginning of the new millennium, Gates decided that perhaps breaking large schools into smaller schools might yield some improvements. Gates spent billions of dollars piloting programs, creating thousands of small schools across the country and ultimately walking away from the project when he decided that it wasn’t producing results. What’s important to note is that not only did Gates decide what kinds of structural changes he was paying for, and not only did he leave many districts to figure out what to do next with the half-finished experiment that was their community school system, but Gates also set the terms for what a successful school would look like. You might be able to think of many benefits to having your child in a smaller school, but Gates only looked at three—attendance, college enrollment, and scores on a math and reading test.” (Forbes May 8, 2020)
This report only scratches the surface of the problems that the smaller schools created. Having been a schoolteacher, I saw firsthand the multiple problems that all of these mini-schools created. School buildings were no longer home to one school, but were broken up into 3 or 4 smaller schools with each floor representing a separate school. In some cases, different sections of the same floor were separate schools. This meant that each school had to have a separate principal and support staff. The salary of a school principal alone could range from $100,000 to $160,000. When the salaries and other expenses of the support staff were included, this meant an enormous waste of money.
How could students take pride in their school when their whole school was just a floor or section of a floor? School pride is one of those subtle things that everyone remembers from their school days before these programs were put in place. In high school, we had basketball, football, and other school teams that we could take pride in and cheer for. There are no such teams for these really small schools.
There was also the problem with security. In some cases, middle schools and even elementary schools were in the same buildings as high school students. Students would roam the halls and enter floors that they were not supposed to be on. High school students could be very intimidating to younger students. Security guards had a tough time keeping track of the movement of students. They could not readily know which students belonged where. This was a big problem in poorer communities that had poor school administrations. These mini-schools did not result in smaller class sizes or any monumental improvements. It was just more bureaucracy, more money, and little to show for it.
Another educational project that the Gates Foundation took on was called “inBloom”.
“The Foundation put at least $100 million into inBloom, a massive project intended to mine data from students and staff at schools. Somehow, backers failed to anticipate that there would be considerable resistance to the idea, and inBloom ended as a massive failure.” (Forbes May 8, 2020)
Many educators, parents and others remember the inBloom fiasco and are afraid that the reimagining project might be another attempt by Bill Gates to access personal data on students and teachers.
Common Core State Standards
Out of all of the educational projects that the Gates Foundation has taken on, probably the most famous and most disastrous of has been Common Core. There was lots of fanfare about all of the great things it was supposed to bring to the educational system and to students. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened.
Common Core began in 2010 and was supposed to be a set of academic standards that states across America would adhere to so that the standards would be consistent. These standards were also meant to raise the academic bar and make American students more competitive and helping them to catch up with their peers in other countries such as Japan, China and India. This initiative was also heavily supported by Bill Gates as well as President Obama. While in theory Common Core was supposed to be just a set of standards, for all practical purposes it morphed into a national curriculum, which is technically illegal in the U.S.
While Bill Gates was not the originator of the idea for Common Core, he took the lead in promoting it. According to the Washington Post, the Gates Foundation poured an estimated $200 million into Common Core and was able to get most states to adopt it in just 2 years. Money was given to teachers’ unions, policymakers and many others. With so much money flowing around, many states were adopting Common Core without any elected officials even voting on it. This was also supported by President Obama, who brought into his administration many staffers from the Gates Foundation, as well as entities that received money from the Gates Foundation. Obama began putting pressure on states to adopt Common Core by offering federal financial incentives. Obama’s support for Common Core was so strong that it was sometimes referred to as Obamacore. (Washington Post, June 7, 2014)
This whirlwind of support for Common Core backed by Bill Gates’ money and influence did have its critics. For example, Sarah Reckhow, who worked at Michigan State University, and was an expert in philanthropy and education policy, stated:
“Usually, there’s a pilot test — something is tried on a small scale, outside researchers see if it works, and then it’s promoted on a broader scale….That didn’t happen with the Common Core. Instead, they aligned the research with the advocacy. . . . At the end of the day, it’s going to be the states and local districts that pay for this.” (Washington Post, June 7, 2014)
Tom Loveless, Brookings Institution policy expert and former Harvard professor expressed similar misgivings about Common Core. He referred to Common Core as a “shaky theory” and that he had not seen a correlation between high standards and improved student achievement. (Washington Post, June 7, 2014)
In other words, Common Core was all theory. There was no hard evidence to support it. There was no school or school district that Common Core was tried out on first that produced dramatic success. Common Core was a $200 million promotional campaign for a house built on sand.
The Real Deal From The Frontlines
As a teacher and tutor before and after Common Core was implemented, I saw firsthand the hardships that it caused for students and teachers. It was shocking to be in a situation where teachers could no longer be creative or tailor lessons to the unique needs of their students. We were being told what to teach, what not to teach, how to teach it, and at what pace to teach it. On top of that, we were evaluated based on the state Common Core tests. We the teachers, not the creators of Common Core, would be held responsible if students did poorly on these tests! Everything became about teaching to the tests.
The problems with Common Core were numerous. For example, English teachers could no longer give spelling tests. Instead, we were told that we had to create “Word Walls”. We had to get large posters and write vocabulary words on them. We then had to post these all around the classroom. Somehow through osmosis, students were supposed to magically learn how to spell those words, pronounce them and understand their meanings. This was complete insanity! As teachers, we knew that this was idiotic and often talked about how stupid it was, but what could we do? If we refused to follow this and other dictates, we could lose our jobs. Some teachers were courageous and put up the word walls, but still gave their students spelling tests and did the other things that they knew worked and were necessary. It was not surprising that the students of these types of teachers did far better on the standardized Common Core tests than did those whose teachers followed the orthodoxy.
In high schools, they stopped teaching grammar altogether. I was told that this was based on the assumption that students learned all of the grammar they needed by 8th grade. This was of course preposterous! It was becoming obvious to many teachers that Common Core was in fact setting students up to fail!
The situation was much worse when it came to math. Basic things such as knowing timetables, division, fractions, decimals, percentages, and other such skills were being deemphasized. When these skills were allowed to be taught, they had to be taught in the most confusing way possible. For example, to simply multiply two numbers by two numbers involved a long-complicated procedure that required students to draw a box and place numbers around it. The absurdity of this was mind-boggling. The old-fashioned way which required students to know their timetables was far simpler and quicker.
Aside from confusing students with these new and insane ways of explaining things, Common Core math was outrageously difficult. Most parents did not understand it and could not help their children, and even many math teachers either did not understand it or had difficulty explaining it to their students. There was little to no preparation for math teachers on how to teach this new math curriculum. Much of the math was also completely out of touch with anything students were likely to encounter in their adult life on the job.
Students were caught in the middle of this madness, with teachers who had difficulty explaining this new math, and parents who had no idea of how to explain it. The situation was so bad that teachers and parents began posting sample Common Core math problems on social media to show the world how insanely difficult these Common Core math problems were. I even posted a 7th grade Common Core math problem, and no one in my social media network could figure out the answer except a woman who had a master’s degree in math!
Students who were struggling with basic skills such as knowing their timetables and division were nonetheless forced to do difficult algebra and geometry problems. Again, this was complete and utter madness. Teachers knew that this was wrong, but again, what could teachers do? Students were becoming frustrated, and many were giving up. Any good teacher knows that the last thing that you want to do is to frustrate a student. Once a student is frustrated, his motivation drops. Good teachers know the importance of giving positive reinforcement and to tailor lessons to the students’ level. Common Core was like taking a chainsaw to a field of roses. The Common Core math curriculum and the program in general were systematically destroying students’ confidence and self-esteem.
It was not hard to predict that student test scores were going to drop dramatically–which they did. Student test scores had been going up gradually each year, but that all changed after the introduction of Common Core.
“In several cases student achievement reversed under Common Core, and in every subject studied students would have been better off if states had not adopted Common Core. (The Federalist May 30, 2019)
Grades began to drop, and those hardest hit were in low-income communities. This was also easy to predict, because those in low-income communities tend to have fewer resources available to them and therefore often are behind in some basic skills. Furthermore, those in affluent communities could afford expensive tutors and tutoring services to supplement their public school educations. (Pioneer Institute Public Policy Research, April 27, 2020)
States Respond Differently To Common Core
While 46 states adopted Common Core, including the District of Columbia, a few did not. These were: Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia and Puerto Rico chose not to. Several states chose to drop Common Core. These were: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. It is interesting to note that all of the states that continue to use Common Core, have chosen to rename it! Why would all of these states rename Common Core if it was actually effective? Furthermore, some states have chosen to modify Common Core. These were: Alabama, Kansas, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Whether these modifications were improvements or not is open for debate. This information was last updated at of 2018. (ED Gate, 2018)
Parents and Teachers Fight Back
Parents, teachers and others eventually got fed up with Common Core. They began staging protests, and lobbying politicians for change. Many parents across America also began opting their children out of Common Core tests. Parents argued that those tests were not fair to students or teachers. Furthermore, they did not like the fact that student information could be accessed by private companies. (CBS New York April 14, 2014)
These are only a few of the problems with Common Core. I conducted interviews with some of those who were on the frontlines – teachers. They shared their anger and frustration over Common Core and many things that were going on that most parents were not aware of. (See the video link to the panel discussion below)
Cuomo Still Loves Gates
Despite all the problems and hardships that Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have brought to educational systems across the country, Cuomo still refers to him as a “visionary” and wants him to again meddle in New York’s education system. It is as if Governor Cuomo is oblivious to all the complaints and the adverse impacts that Bill Gates has had on education across America. Some wonder if Cuomo is more mesmerized and influenced by Bill Gates’s wealth and power than he is concerned for the welfare and best interests of New York students. Cuomo wants to enlist Gates in a historic overhaul of the entire New York State education system to “reimagine” a different way that could get rid of school buildings and potentially open a nightmarish Pandora’s Box. This is why so many educators, parents and others are shocked and angered by Governor Cuomo’s appointment of Bill Gates. And this sentiment is not limited to New York State; many fully understand that if Gates is allowed to “reimagine” education in New York, he might soon turn his sights to the rest of the country.
Interview with Teachers – Reimagining NY Education